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Cash Grabs

The Real Corruption Risk Facing Trump

He’s desperate for money, but we should be worried less about foreign autocrats than rich Americans.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Donald Trump is broke. He has spent the last month desperately searching, and failing, to find an underwriter for the $464 million bond he owes the state of New York after a gargantuan civil fraud judgment. His campaign has cash-flow problems too. Lagging President Biden’s fundraising by as much as $100 million, he is failing to attract donors small and big—while also plundering his war chest to cover tens of millions of dollars in legal fees. The Republican National Committee, which Trump has recently taken over and filled with lackeys, is also struggling to compete with its Democratic counterpart: 2023 was its worst fundraising year in a decade, concluding with a mere $8 million on hand.

The result is an apocalyptic financial situation: Strapped for cash both personally and politically, Trump is desperate for money and, judging from his deranged posts lately on Truth Social, it’s sending him into a tailspin of panic.

Trump’s money woes, long record of public and private corruption, past cozy relationships with autocrats in Russia and Saudi Arabia, and potential interest in reuniting with Paul Manafort—who admitted to supplying Putin-linked figures with polling data during the 2016 campaign—have understandably led many to suggest that Trump, out of desperation for cash, is especially vulnerable to unsavory figures right now.

On Monday, my former colleague Brian Beutler argued on his Substack that Trump’s links to Manafort alone should be enough to deny him access to classified briefings, which are usually provided to major-party nominees. Democratic Representative Sean Casten tweeted that the $464 million bond makes Trump a “massive national security risk” because “any foreign adversary seeking to buy a President knows the price,” while New Republic contributor David Cay Johnston told MSNBC that Trump’s debts would make his return to the White House a “national security nightmare.”

Beutler is right: Trump shouldn’t get classified briefings, given his long record of spilling classified information to adversaries as well as random members at his Mar-a-Lago club. If he were reelected, Trump would undoubtedly do everything in his power to profit from the presidency, just as he did last time. His close ties to Saudi Arabia and his very public affection for Vladimir Putin deserve the attention that they get. But Trump needs money now—a lot of it—for both his campaign and himself, and he is not going to get it from a foreign power. He will, however, be on the hunt to rake in as much money as possible from deep-pocketed Americans. His campaign and his political platform are quite literally up for sale.

Trump’s recent reversal on TikTok is case in point. As president, Trump railed against the Chinese-owned video-meme app, going as far as to sign an executive order in 2020 to force its sale. That order got tied up in the courts and then was rescinded by Biden. But last week, in a switch that caught many in the GOP off guard, Trump came out against a bill in Congress that would have done exactly what he had intended four years ago.

There may be a political dimension to his flip-flop. He’s doing far better with young voters now than at any point in his political career. But, as I argued last week, the most compelling argument for his reversal is simply that one of his biggest donors, billionaire Jeff Yass, owns a massive stake in TikTok’s owner, ByteDance. Trump met with Yass at Mar-a-Lago in early March, and less than two weeks later he came out against forcing the sale of the app. Yass has already spent $34 million to help elect Trump and congressional Republicans in November.

It’s not just TikTok. Trump has also changed his tune on cuts to Medicare and Social Security. In an interview on CNBC on March 11, Trump was asked about how he would ensure the future solvency of entitlement programs. “So first of all, there is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements, in terms of cutting,” Trump said. “And in terms of, also, the theft and the bad management of entitlements—tremendous bad management of entitlements—there’s tremendous amounts of things and numbers of things you can do.”

This represented a major about-face. Trump had spent much of the GOP primary campaign insisting he was the one candidate who wouldn’t take an ax to popular entitlement programs. Indeed, his position on this issue helped him win the presidential nomination back in 2016, and surely helped again this year. Cutting Medicare and Social Security is a long-standing priority for Republican donors—but it’s deeply unpopular with the general public.

Granted, when asked about his actual policies, Trump usually replies with a word salad: grand but vague statements about the “tremendous amounts of things … you can do.” Trump’s recent comments on entitlements may simply represent his thinking poorly on his feet—after all, his campaign tried to walk it back soon after, saying that the former president was only talking about “cutting waste.” But there’s good reason to believe that Trump would float cutting entitlements—particularly to wealthy Republican donors, now that he is in desperate need of money.

Trump’s entire political identity is based on the false premise that he is an outsider, someone not beholden to any political establishment or creed. In 2016, he won the presidency by campaigning against both the liberal order, represented by Hillary Clinton, and the conservative one, represented by Jeb Bush, the exact kind of Republican who would run on “reforming” entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. But now that Trump is deeply in the red, one can expect more flip-flops like this. He badly needs big donors—and he’s clearly willing to change policy proposals on a host of issues, from China to entitlements, to get them.

This is undoubtedly less sexy than the idea that Trump is casting around for an oligarch or crown prince to pay down his debts. But from a campaign perspective—the perspective, specifically, of those who like to see him lose in November—it’s compelling. Trump’s popularity with his base is rooted in part in his insistence that he’s not like other Republicans—that he represents a clean break from the governing orthodoxies that have defined the last half-century of GOP policymaking. As Trump pivots to the general election, however, he may become more beholden to corporate America and rich donors than his vanquished Republican challengers ever could have dreamed of themselves.